Kevin Kelly the author of What Technology Wants, speaking on a panel at the Financial Times’ Global Boardroom virtual conference, suggested that we are still very much trying to work out the relationship we want with technology. Speaking to the theme of trust and technology, Kelly was replying to a question about whether the emergence of three different models across the globe, each with a different emphasis on tech regulation and surveillance, was a problem. He said that we are trying things out, to see how comfortable we are with different models and moreover, we are changing and evolving our expectations and boundaries over time. It’s hard to regulate, he claims, until we know more precisely what it is that we want.
This is typical of Kelly who often sees the value in diversity and plurality. In his words, ‘it is healthy to have these different experiments’ stating that he is not certain that attacks on domesticating and civilising these technologies is the best approach. ‘Domesticating technology’ has a poetic ring and sounds more human than the technocratic regulatory language that policy makers and governments like to use to explain the need for additional controls on tech companies and their relationships with users.
But Martha Lane-Fox, the other pioneer on the panel was keen to stress the importance of preserving trust in technology, particularly as the world moves through this pandemic and it is clearer than ever that technology companies like Amazon are part of the public infrastructure. Both agreed that these companies are delivering the kinds of services we once expected of national or local governments, and that whilst they are clearly not public sector bodies, neither are they just straightforward corporates. Their extension into our lives is more than transactional and in Kelly’s words, they seem quasi-governmental and have revealed new territory that is hard to navigate.
Lane-Fox echoed the idea of our dependency on technology, quoting from the think-tank she founded, Doteveryone, and its new research report released earlier in the week. The ‘People Power & Technology Report’, carried out across the UK, revealed interesting and contradictory attitudes towards digital technology. According to the report’s findings there continues to be a gap between the benefits people feel from technology in their lives as individuals, and the impact they think it has on society. Lane-Fox reported that 81% of respondents said the internet has made life better for them but only 58% said technology has had a positive impact on society overall. Moreover, the report suggests 58% thought that the technology sector was under-regulated and they would be prepared to accept a trade-off as regards their own experience in return for better governance.
As Kelly pointed out, we have very many feelings about technology, some aspects of it we trust and some we don’t and as a result it is hard to generalise. Regardless of that, we should not let technology companies off the hook, and the public should push their governments for more accountability and action on this, challenged Lane-Fox. There was no argument from Marietje Schaake on that front. The former MEP and current International Policy Director at Stanford, suggested what is required is an international equivalent to NATO but for technology security, some kind of democratic governance model, charged with preserving the rule of law and upholding democracy in the digital sphere.
The three panelists were asked for their opinions on the trends that Covid-19 has ushered in and that were likely to remain with us over time. The panel delivered many insights into how existing technology trends had been accelerated by the pandemic but highlighted some specific trends:
- Virtuality of work. This was evidenced from the virtual conference taking place in that moment, where the Financial Times had delivered three days of globally recognised speakers in a freely-available virtual setting to over 52,000 people worldwide;
- Diagnostics in health. More attention would be paid to this area and more value would be placed on it in future;
- Digitisation of institutions. The UK Parliament and the House of Lords in which Lane-Fox takes a seat, underwent a digital transformation within the space of one month;
- Climate-Covid planetary solutions. Now we have been given a glimpse of a less polluted, less industrially-dependent environment, people may be able to imagine an alternative set of solutions for the future; and
- Cyber-resilience. A greater focus on building the necessary defences against cyber attacks and other security issues.
The author is a member of the advisory council to Doteveryone